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Silwanowicz v. Sologub

A-3665-02T3 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2004) (Unpublished)

CHURCHES—Before resolving what may be an internal church dispute, a court must apply what has become known as the McKelvey test and in doing so, the court is permitted to interpret religious documents if it can do so in purely secular terms.

A bishop of the Belarusan Autocephalic Orthodox Church lived rent free in a house owned by the church. When the bishop’s relationship with his archbishop became strained, the archbishop formally dismissed the bishop from his position and from the church. The church unanimously voted to support the archbishop’s decision and directed the bishop to leave the house. It then gave the bishop notice to vacate the premises. After the bishop refused to leave, the archbishop sued to have him removed. The lower court refused to accept the matter, ruling that it was an ecclesiastical matter and that ecclesiastical courts should resolve it.

Since the lower court did not set forth the legal basis for its decision to remove the case, the Appellate Division assumed that it was either based upon a determination that any judicial action would violate the First Amendment by encroaching on the ability of a church to manage its internal affairs contrary to the free exercise clause, or on a concern that it would become entangled in the church’s religious affairs contrary to the establishment clause. The Court rejected both possibilities, holding that it would be incorrect to conclude that secular courts lack jurisdiction to hear any dispute within a church. It ruled the critical factor should be whether resolving the claim would require an unacceptable examination of a truly religious question or circumstance. In particular, it held that a court could not constitutionally adjudicate claims involving a decision to hire or fire employees dealing with “the propagation of religion,” but could hear claims about employees outside of the religious context. To determine whether to get involved, a court must use the McKelvey test. That test requires a court to first analyze each element of every claim and to determine whether adjudication would require the court to choose between “competing religious visions,” or cause interference with the church’s administrative prerogatives. In doing so, a court is permitted to interpret provisions of religious documents including those dealing with property rights and other nondoctrinal matters as long as the analysis can be done in purely secular terms. The test then requires the court to determine the remedy sought and decide whether enforcement of a judgment would require excessive procedural or substantive interference with church operations.

The Appellate Division noted that the lower court failed to perform the required analysis, and therefore it was unable to determine whether the dispute was subject to First Amendment protection. Consequently, the Court reversed the lower court’s decision to remove the case and remanded it for a plenary hearing so that the lower court could perform a fact-sensitive analysis consistent with the McKelvey test.

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